Mayors Ask Trump Administration to Scrap Plan to Let Cities and States Block Refugees

Faith leader were arrested during a protest in support of the refugee resettlement program in Oct. 2019. Faith groups are suing the Trump administration over changes to the refugee resettlement system.

Faith leader were arrested during a protest in support of the refugee resettlement program in Oct. 2019. Faith groups are suing the Trump administration over changes to the refugee resettlement system. AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

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A coalition of 88 mayors sent a letter to the State Department decrying President Trump’s executive order, which they said would “lead to a patchwork of conflicting policies.”

In September, the Trump administration issued a plan that would give city and state officials the final say on refugee resettlement, requiring local leaders give permission to the federal government before any refugees can find a home within their borders.

On Monday, a coalition of 88 bipartisan mayors from 35 states sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the administration to rescind the executive order announcing the proposal. California, with 11 signatories, has the most mayors on the list, including the mayors of Los Angeles, Stockton, and San Jose.

“The Executive Order would fundamentally change the structure of the U.S. resettlement program by devolving key decisions primarily to the states and ultimately lead to a patchwork of conflicting policies running contrary to the purpose of a national resettlement program,” the letter reads. “This is an unprecedented and harmful procedure, particularly given that resettlement agencies already consult regularly with state and local stakeholders regarding community needs.”

Under the plan outlined in the executive order, states and local jurisdictions are required to take a greater role in the placement and resettlement of refugees. The order tasks the secretaries of State and Health and Human Services to create a process within 90 days to determine how states and localities can give their consent for the resettlement of refugees. If a local government does not provide consent to receive refugees, then “refugees should not be resettled within that state or locality,” according to the order.

The executive order has faced pushback since its announcement, most prominently from the leaders of immigrants’ rights groups who say it will make the refugee acceptance and resettlement processes more complicated. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement condemning the measure, saying that while they “strongly support the vital state and local engagement in resettlement … [they] are concerned that this policy will invite legal challenges and could negatively impact refugee welcome and family unity and add greatly to both processing uncertainty and refugee processing time.”

The measure is, in fact, facing a legal challenge. Three different religious organizations, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, argue that the order violates federal law in allowing state and local governments to veto the decisions of federal agencies. 

In a statement, Rev. John L. McCullough, the president of CWS, called the proposal a “thinly veiled attempt to play political games” with refugees’ lives. “For more than 70 years, CWS has partnered with churches and faith communities across the nation to help refugee families successfully integrate into their communities and rebuild their lives in the United States,” he said. “There is no justification for allowing local officials to shut down a proven program and block these faith communities from carrying out their mission to welcome the stranger.“

President Trump says that his order is intended to allow local leaders a greater say in the makeup of their communities. At a rally in Minneapolis last month, he directed his remarks at city leaders. "You should be able to decide what is best for your own cities and for your own neighborhoods," he said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall told The Washington Post that he supports giving states more authority. “There is an array of challenges—financial, legal and public safety, to name a few—that states or localities face when compelled to accommodate refugee populations,” he said. “States deserve to be heard before those decisions are made.”

Some advocates are afraid that allowing communities to pick and choose their residents could lead down a dangerous path. “It was not that long ago that Jews and African-Americans were banned from living in certain neighborhoods and towns,” said Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, in a statement. “Now the Trump Administration has issued an executive order which allows states and localities to ban resettled refugees?”

Though no states have yet indicated that they will block refugees from entering, the mayors and the advocacy groups opposed to the measure fear a repeat of 2015, when 31 governors said they would not accept Syrian refugees following terror attacks in Paris. In 2017, Tennessee sued the federal government to block all refugee resettlement in the state. The suit was dismissed in a federal district court, but the state lawmakers who brought the suit say they plan to appeal. 

The mayors who wrote to Pompeo also urged the administration to return the refugee admissions quota to its prior level. In 2020, the Trump administration will only allow 18,000 refugees into the country, down from the previous limit of 30,000, and a near 80% drop from the 110,000 limit set by President Obama in 2016.

The mayors said that capping the number of refugees that low would not only nix the U.S.’s position as a “world leader” for refugee resettlement, but also harm local economies. “[Refugees] entrepreneurship rate is greater than that of other immigrants, as are their long-term investments in the country, including founding companies, earning citizenship, and buying homes,” the letter reads. “Indeed, they have positively reshaped cities across the country in recent decades by opening restaurants, buying vacant homes, contributing to the cultural landscape, and adding to the local workforce.”

In a statement when the refugee resettlement reduction was announced, the State Department said “the current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large numbers of refugees.” 

But this is not a universally supported position within the Republican party. For example, Gov. Gary Herbert recently asked for more refugees to be settled in Utah in order to fill the thousands of vacant job openings in the state, which has an unemployment rate of 2.7% The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also found that refugees have brought in $63 billion more in government revenue than they cost to accept and settle over the past decade. 

The mayors concluded their letter with a plea: “We hope that you will heed our call. America’s cities and our nation will be stronger for it.”

The U.S. Department of State did not respond to a request for comment about the mayors’ letter.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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